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27 Oct 1999 : Column 980

Pig Industry

12.58 pm

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk): I am delighted to introduce this debate on the crisis facing the pig industry. Many producers have left the industry, and many more are staring ruin in the face. Desperate farmers have remortgaged their houses, borrowed from their pension funds and built up unsustainable levels of overdraft.

Pig farmers are not subsidised; they do not receive one penny from Westminster or from Brussels. They tend to be small, specialist family concerns. They work 365 days and nights a year, often in conditions that many would find unacceptable. Above all, perhaps, farmers experience intense loneliness, and it is probably for that reason that suicide is so prevalent.

Robert Steven, one of my constituents, is the chairman of the Norfolk section of the National Farmers Union. He said recently:

My constituent, Mr. Taylor from Ludham, writes that he has kept pigs since 1944. He says:

    "I am sorry and sad that my son now has only 20 sows left and these will be gone in a few weeks."

Janet Mutimer--who is down here from Norfolk today--lives close to me in Norfolk. She writes:

    "Thousands of breeding stock are being slaughtered, jobs on farms and in allied industries lost, our industry is being exported by the Government."

Ian Campbell, the regional chairman of the British Pig Industry Support Group, says that

    "the industry is dying on its feet with the industry facing melt down."

My local newspaper, the Eastern Daily Press, is leading a campaign

    "to rescue an industry which is bleeding to death."

The paper says that

    "if Nick Brown persists in the policy of delay and quietly doing nothing, there will be no trace left of the pig industry."

It is that serious.

Between 1998 and 1999, pig farmers' incomes have fallen by 174 per cent. and they will be in loss for 1999. The UK pig herd has contracted by 12 per cent., and the weekly kill rate has fallen from 330,000 to 260,000, which is the lowest level for 33 years, according to the Meat and Livestock Commission. The average all pig price is stuck at 75p per kilogram, which is 15p below break-even point for most farmers. Imports of pigmeat from the EU increased by nearly a third in the first half of 1999.

What more evidence do the Government need before they decide to take some action? One gets the impression that their policies are more informed by "The Archers" and "Cold Comfort Farm" than by real life, and that they have no concern about, knowledge of or interest in the British pig industry. It is almost as if the Government regard it as a virtual crisis, not a real one. At the MLC breakfast yesterday at which pig awards were given out, there was not a single Minister from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food present.

The Government must and can take the following actions. First, they must stipulate that all local authorities and public bodies must buy meat that complies with the

27 Oct 1999 : Column 981

British standard. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food promised to do that a year ago, but a survey to be published next week shows that more than half of all local authorities have made no change to their purchasing policies. It would seem that the Minister and MAFF do not even have the energy to ensure that bodies under their direct control support British farmers.

The chairman of the British Pig Association wrote to me in the following terms:

I hope today that the Minister will state categorically what she has done in that respect.

Secondly, labelling must be honest. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Cran), for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) and for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) have taken an especial interest in that point. Every consumer must know the origin of the meat that they purchase and the regime under which that meat is reared, fed, slaughtered and processed. Currently, under EU regulations, foreign-reared pigmeat that does not comply with UK welfare and safety standards can be imported, processed and then labelled as British bacon or ham. That is an outrageous situation.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the tragedies for the British pig industry is that it has met the highest standards, but ironically it is now being penalised for doing so? As far as its members can see, nothing has been done to address the situation for the past year, since the present Minister of Agriculture took office.

Mr. Prior: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and it is one of the tragedies of the situation that this country has led the world in animal welfare. The British farmer, at a capital cost of more than £200 million and on-going operating costs of £2 per finished pig, has rightly abolished sow stalls and tethers. In Europe, sows are still tethered and still spend 275 days a year in a sow stall measuring less than 8 ft long and 2 ft wide. Some are even smaller. Those pigs cannot move or turn around. We have rightly outlawed that barbarous practice in this country.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has said:

The campaign director of Compassion in World Farming has written to the Minister to say:

    "I am concerned to learn that, according to recent Eurostat figures, the volume of pigmeat imports into the UK from the EU rose by 34 per cent. in the first five months of this year. Much of this imported pigmeat may have been produced using stall or tether systems in which sows cannot exercise or even turn round throughout their 16-week pregnancies."

The consumer must be given the opportunity to make an informed choice to support high welfare standardsby buying home-grown and reared production. Many

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consumers are buying pigmeat unwittingly, unaware that it has been produced in conditions rightly banned in this country.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): How is that pigmeat coming into this country? I thought that the European Union set certain standards and if the meat is coming in from outside the EU, should not the Commission do something about that?

Mr. Prior: My hon. Friend makes a valid point.

Thirdly, the Minister should invoke article 36 of the treaty of Rome to ban meat imports that do not comply with our public health specifications. As long ago as April 1999--nearly six months--a French Government report, which has only just been released in public in the UK, stated:

It also reported cases in which meat and bonemeal had not been heated to the obligatory temperature for long enough and in which engine oil and heavy metal residues had been added to feedstuffs.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): My hon. Friend mentioned the use of meat and bonemeal in feedstuff production, which is prohibited in British meat production. In my capacity as president of the British Pig Association, I remind the House that the Government were called upon 15 months ago to investigate the possibility of putting some value back into pig offals, but no progress has yet been made. Does my hon. Friend agree that that shows a cavalier approach to the practical suggestions that have been made by the industry?

Mr. Prior: I agree that the Government have taken a wholly complacent and cavalier approach. If the recent revelations about EU feedstuffs are not a major public health issue, I do not know what is. Even the Minister of Agriculture has described the practice as

If the French can ban British beef, surely we have every right to protect our industry when faced with a flood of imports that pose a risk to public health and consumer confidence.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): My hon. Friend has mentioned the recent revelations, but does he have any information about how long the Minister and MAFF have known about the addition of sludge to French animal feed? My investigations tell me that they knew as long ago as May last year, yet it was only last week that the British public were told.

Mr. Prior: I have seen in Reuters copies of the French Government report which was published as long ago as April this year. I was also horrified to hear on "Today" that the Minister of Agriculture has not been in touch with his French counterpart at all in the past week. One wonders whether the Minister realises that there is a crisis in public health in this country.

The Government have still not learned that it is possible to be pro-British without being anti-European and that respect is won by being tough, not by being weak.

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This country is increasingly regarded as a bunch of patsies. It is time that we stopped being embarrassed about standing up for British interests. It is time that the Minister of Agriculture stood up for British farmers, not French farmers. It is ludicrous to say that it is safe to eat foreign meat fed on sewage sludge and engine oil, but not safe to eat British beef on the bone.

Fourthly, as the Eastern Daily Press put it,

The Meat and Livestock Commission, which is a statutory body, estimates that the cost of the controls amounts to some £5.26 per pig. That is mainly the direct result of not feeding meat and bonemeal to pigs and the ban on offal disposal, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). The fact is that in single-species, dedicated pig abattoirs, porcine meat and bonemeal can be kept separate and its market value could be realised. The risk of cross-contamination can be eliminated, but the Minister has made no determined effort with the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee to achieve a exemption for dedicated abattoirs. The Minister does not seem to recognise the importance of getting value back into pig by-products.

More importantly, the Minister should note that as a result of the dioxin contamination in Belgium, Belgian pig farmers have received 80 per cent. grants from their Government as compensation towards their costs of production. That was agreed by the European Commission on the grounds that dioxin contamination was an extraordinary occurrence. Ironically, the Belgian Government cited BSE as an example of an extraordinary occurrence.

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